The Problem With North Dakota's Universities Is They've Stopped Serving Students

While reading the latest article in the Dickinson Press’ excellent coverage of the Dickinson State University Foundation’s financial woes over the weekend this passage jumped out at me:

The Press’ analysis of 12 years of federal financial reports suggests that somewhere around June 2005 the Foundation ceased to operate as a non-profit primarily focused on providing scholarships to DSU students and instead became an organization focused on financing building development projects, both on and off the DSU campus.

According to the attorney general’s legal motion and interviews with current and former Foundation staff, it was those development projects which led to many of the Foundation’s financial problems, including the need to leverage restricted funds as collateral.

But as the Foundation was dealing with the pressures development overruns and building management costs had placed on the nonprofit by 2014, former CEO Kevin Thompson continued to search for other construction projects to get involved in, including the proposed Badlands Event Center and Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Wow. The Press continues:

The federal paperwork shows the amount of scholarship money dispensed from the Foundation has stagnated over the past 13 years, and actually declined if the rate of inflation is calculated in.

Over that time, the percentage of Foundation expenses going to scholarships dropped dramatically.

During the 2001 fiscal year, annual scholarships made up 68 percent of the expenses at the Foundation. By 2005, scholarships made up 37 percent of that total, and by 2012, that number was down to 25 percent.

Just to put that decline in context, keep in mind that the cost of attending DSU has nearly tripled since 2000.

While defenders of the DSU Foundation dispute this, it seems clear from actions if not words that the focus of the foundation wasn’t so much on students but on other activities.

Which is a microcosm for everything that’s wrong with the North Dakota University System. The students have taken a back seat.

Payrolls at our universities have become bloated with administrators even as enrollment growth and instructional hiring have remained relatively flat. University administrators have pushed for aggressive campus expansion – new building projects and more space – even as maintenance to existing buildings gets overlooked.

The President of North Dakota State University has an $80,000 per year chauffeur and bodyguard, yet some research labs at the institution don’t have running water.

Football championships and hockey rankings make headlines, yet university system PR departments will go to war over anyone daring to mention abysmal graduation rates or ugly remediation rates.

The universities tout their “economic impact,” measuring it in the billions with mathematical voodoo, yet we’re supposed to accept ever-rising tuition rates even as North Dakota taxpayers lead the nation in appropriations to higher ed.

Our university system has gotten very good at athletics and building new buildings and signing up for cozy partnerships with big business. During that time, the value of an education at a North Dakota university has declined as serving students takes a back seat.

This shift in priorities is measurable at the Dickinson State University Foundation, yet it’s obvious on every public campus in our state for those willing to look past the publicity firewall.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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